Friday, September 13, 2019

Jon Tewksbury and Jason Shabatoski film screening

Where Fools Wander In: the collected parody films of Jon Tewksbury and Jason Shabatoski.
Curated by Gerald Saul for the Saskatchewan FIlmpool Cooperative
Thursday September 12, 7:00 pm, at the Artesian - Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

So What's the Deal? The Jody Fulkerson Story (17 minutes) 2003
 written by Jon Tewksbury, Jason Shabatoski, Logan Parkinson, Regan Jans, Rob Miller. directed by Jon Tewksbury

Shuya Show  (47 minutes) 2009
written by Jon Tewksbury, Jason Shabatoski, and David Stefanyshyn
directed by Jon Tewksbury and Jason Shabatoski

Spooksbury (18 minutes) 2017
written and directed by Jon Tewksbury

Jon Tewksbury and Jason Shabatoski’s collaborations began with meeting each other and many of their other co-writers and recurring performers when they were studying filmmaking together at the University of Regina. In the three irreverent short comedies in this program, Shabatoski and Tewksbury created parodies of genres which defy the conventions of satire, leading the viewer to question the nature, and perhaps the very existence, of the original genres for which they seem to reference.  
In this program’s first film, So What’s the Deal? The Jody Fulkerson Story , they embrace the mockumentary. . As with other works in this genre such as This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984), Best in Show (Christopher Guest, 2000), or Land Without Bread (Luis Bunuel, 1933), humour emerges as the filmmakers alter the tone of the source genre and twist the truth of the subject matter. Ironically, the titular character of So What’s the Deal? The Jody Fulkerson Story is a stand-up comedian and therefore the filmmaker’s task was twofold: to reverse the nature of the subject (make him not funny) but at the same time, make the film funny. While they do take a few cheap shots at this character, allowing viewers to laugh at him, they also find ways to show us the flaws in his armour and allow him to remain human, and even likeable.
Central to the film is an aspect of controlled improvisation, with each performer receiving co-writing credit for material that emerged from weeks of informal woskshopping (ie: goofing around in a role-playing method of script development). Nevertheless, the film never felt rudderless. The foolishness remained on screen and never in the driver’s seat. The end project has sophistication and polish, suggesting production values far above its meager student film budget.
The second film, Shuya Show, has the filmmakers working again with their filmmaker friends, in particular the late, great enigmatic Dave Stefanyshyn who used his signature deadpan performance style in this film which pretends to be what we can only guess is a beyond-the-iron-curtain drama. The faux dubbing of all dialog lacks as much in finesse as the production itself appears to have. Acting seems impaired, sets and design dreary, and special effects ludicrously flawed. At times, the viewers finds themselves uncertain if it is satire or simply an appropriated low budget cinema flop. Shuya Show carries on these filmmaker’s obsession with the nature of failure, and drudgery of life, and the pointlessness of celebrity through a mix of clever role reversals, ironic comedic surprises, and low-brow humour. Attention to detail and knowing when to let the project suffer from its orchestrated mistakes was a balancing act that the filmmakers needed to carefully consider.
In their most recent film, Spooksbury, Shabatoski and Tewksbury again place the viewers in a liminal space behind the scenes of production but watching the movie at the same time - uninformed insiders. As such, we become uncomfortable because of the tension of seeing characters, primarily the title character played by Jon himself, who should be uncomfortable but is seemingly oblivious to the situation he is in. It is a sort of dramatic irony but on an emotional level rather than a dramatic one. Just as we ask how could Jody Fulkerson not know that he is making such huge mistakes with his performance, we also ask how Spooksbury does not know how ill-suited he is for the performance he is supposed to be giving?
As with So What's the Deal, Spooksbury is another project about a failed or incompetent performer, and like in So What's the Deal, the peripheral characters are similarly aware of the problem. These side characters, film crew, interviewer subjects, and others share the film viewer's awareness but lack the distance privileged by the cinematic fourth wall which allows the film viewer to see the train wreck events for their absurd humour.
The films each draw attention to the act of filmmaking, grounding the projects in the world that these filmmakers are most knowledgeable about.  In So What’s the Deal, the voice of the interviewer (Jon) talks from behind the camera and in some cases, subjects talk to the camera operator. In Shuya Show, dubbing, titles and other graphic elements are miss-fitted, leading us to question the film process. In Spooksbury, we are most often placed behind the scenes, watching the crew rather than the subject. This creates what arguably is as much a self-portrait of the filmmakers as it is a drama as the lines between what is the story and what is the filmmaker’s role in creating the story is blurred. Furthermore, in each of the three films celebrities (each named in the title of the corresponding film) are treated by everyone around them as just people, with a certain amount of cynicism about being in the spotlight.  This brings media in general into the realm of the everyday, into being just life.
One might further argue that this reflects a prairie sensibility, the misbegotten belief that greatness only exists elsewhere, and filtered through zero-budget filmmaking and through Groucho Marx who would suggest that any celebrity who would be willing to associate with us would not be worth associating with. The films are full of fools and losers because it is a mirror to how we see ourselves. This is the true prairie Gothic, a world of inescapable depression where the only thing more foolish than being a fool is to think that you are not a fool.
Presenting fools as protagonists, these three films contradict the conventions of narrative cinema and deny the need for crisis and climax. Though steeped in the absurd, Tewksbury and Shabatoski’s films give us a frighteningly accurate mirror to gaze upon the inability most of us have to change or grow. We may find that we don’t like their characters, respect their characters, or even believe in their characters, but deep down we know that any of us could be these characters, living in a state of denial of our perpetual failure. We do not laugh with the characters nor do we laugh at the characters, we laugh at ourselves.
Enjoy the program and laugh.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Gerald Saul with NMSL: The end of magic, or how technology gave us everyday spectacles

My research presentation at the University of Regina New Media Studio Laboratory lab open house showcase on March 20, 2015: "The end of magic, or how technology gave us everyday spectacles"
Ever since I was a kid, I loved making movies. I always understood that the medium was all about engineering and science, but when I showed work to people, it felt like magic. Two days ago, I asked my son to define magic and he told me “Magic is effect without cause” (WOBS, 2015). Let’s come back to that in a minute.
New media’s moving images owe everything to old media which, in turn, is indebted to its predecessors. When film was in its infancy 120 years ago, a stage magician Georges Melies saw its potential; not as cinema but as magic. Armed with publications on photographic trickery (superimpositions, split screens, masking) and introducing his own discoveries about editing and the interruption of a shot, he went on to create what are considered the seminal movie special effects. Was he trying to invent the cinema spectacle that is so ubiquitous today? Let us first consider what he was really working with.
From the praxiniscope (1877) to film (1893) to television (1925) to digital video (1986), to the animated GIF (1989) and all other variants of digital moving images, one thing has stayed the same; a rapidly changing display of images evoke an illusion in the mind we refer to as persistence of vision. Looking back at the many historical devices that create this condition, it becomes clear that it is not the camera that creates this, but the viewing apparatus.
1960s Canadian painter and filmmaker Keewatin Dewdney once said: "The projector, not the camera, is the filmmaker's true medium... The very use of the camera as a filmmaking tool has imposed the assumption of continuity on film"
Returning to Melies, was he all about the purity of cinema? Or about the purity of magic? No. Cinema didn’t exist yet, at least not the way we see it today, and in terms of magic, he was dirtying the waters rather than expanding the field. There is no magic. To paraphrase my son, there is nothing without cause.  The illusion of magic created with effects, by the intervening hand of the “magician”.  Melies recognized that the performance didn't matter, nor did the art, or the craft or, for that matter, the truth. All that mattered was what the audience would see. The nature of the motion picture medium would ensure that this would always be an illusion.
No matter if the images being shown are captured from reality through a camera lens or were created using drawing or virtual tools, the output and the nature of the illusion remains the same. We were spellbound.
Tom Gunning wrote “if the production of motion rendered the everyday marvelous, nonetheless, as with all technological novelties, familiarity dulls the edge of wonder”  The obsessive overuse of spectacular illusion has led to a boredom of the marvel. As media not only relies on illusion, but IS illusion, what happens when it is all taken for granted?
 In his book “Trickster Makes This World”, Lewis Hyde quotes Nietzsche saying "Truth are illusions about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions" (p.77) This would suggest that we no longer see a difference between media and truth.  Hyde goes on to argue that a trickster "can debunk an illusion”. In a way, the trickster can help us to believe and disbelieve simultaneously.
Following Hydes’s model for the mythologized tricksters as agents of change, as individuals willing to see the world differently, I challenge myself and my students to break the rules, to play the trickster and to do it “wrong”.  I try to teach them to not be concerned about tradition or structure or expectation except in regards to understanding it and knowing how to disrupt it. At the root of it all, the moving image has not changed in well over a century. All media involving the moving images is just a series of single images which can be altered in any way we can dream. What happens in the time between when one image disappears and the next reappears? That is where we come in and change the rules. Remember, you don’t watch a magic show because you believe in magic, you watch it so that you can enjoy being tricked.  It is, as Melies observed, all an illusion.

I then presented some very short works by MFA graduate students I worked with this term.
An An
Xin Shen
Rania Al Harthi
Zaheer Shahid

 Keewatin Dewdney  quoted by Mike Hoolboom. "Cinema of Death", program notes, Toronto, date unknown.
Gunning, Tom, The Transforming Image” 2013 Pervasive Animation, page 66 , 2013
Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This WorldFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Jason Britski retrospective in Regina

Screening at the RPL Theatre in Regina Saskatchewan 
Hosted by the Saskatchewan Filmpool Co-operative
Tuesday March 25, 2014
Gerald Saul and Jason Britski
These are my curatorial notes for the event:

Since the late 1990s, Jason Britski has been bringing his unique viewpoints, his technical agility, and keen aesthetic style to the art of experimental and documentary film. This selection of eight of his short films samples from his early work but emphasizes the complexity of his newest endeavors, some of which have never been publicly exhibited in Regina. These films are not simple to interpret, being abstract, ambiguous, or both.  They are also beautiful, hypnotic, and deeply personal. As you watch them, you may imagine yourself in the back seat of a car, your mind wandering to real or imagined childhood moments or simply mesmerized by the textures, light, reflections, and patterns of the scenery just beyond the window. You might imagine yourself walking down sidewalks, along coastal shores, or around tourist sites, your feet firmly on the ground but your mind constantly adrift. The point of view in Britski’s films is often that of a passenger, a tourist, or a wander; discovering details but not in control of the journey.
These films are also voyages through time, questioning the value of the past, of old buildings, of monuments, and inevitably of history itself. For Britski, the line between his interests in history and filmmaking is inseparable. Through the use of old home movies, archival photographs, monuments, and ancient places, and mirrors, he uses his filmmaking to question what is valuable in our society. An undercurrent of nostalgia lies within each of these films but his connection to the past is just as often appalling as fond.
Another curious motif within Britski’s films is how he “draws” lines on or across the frame using telephone wires, sidewalk cracks, the sea shore, or the horizon. He discusses this interest as an attraction to the form, texture, and colour but I would propose that each of the lines suggests greater metaphors. While a telephone wire creates a seam in our visual space, separating one part of the sky from another, it is also a piece of a network, a conduit to connect us to one another. A coast line separates water from land but is also a meeting point, a junction which defines the people who live at its edge. Sidewalks connect one place to another. Line on maps divides properties but unite those within the boundaries.  The borders of the frame, the edge of a mirror, pickets of a fence, the bars of a cage, or the prairie horizon similarly divide and unite. It is left to the viewer to decide if these images create division or connection.
Few filmmakers make me second guess my interpretations of their work as much as Jason Britski. For any “rule” I might propose about how or why he makes his films, I can find numerous counterarguments. His work is unified by his distinctive style but contradictory and elusive in his goals and outcomes. It could be that my attempt to find answers is the problem and that to establish an entry point into viewing Britski’s films, one must let go of the need to know the answers but instead to embrace the work as a series of questions. It is as if Britski is searching for something that is always out of reach, trying to decide between an endless stream of binary choices. As viewers, Instead of trying to determine “What does Britski mean by that?”, you might instead ask yourself “What does that mean to me?”.

 Nightfall (2009) 10 min
                Manipulating the images, Britski creates a portrait of night from daytime images shot on numerous media formats. The soundtrack is a collage of music by composer Jason Moberg along with diegetic (or sometimes faux-diegetic) sound including audio of the camera being handled. He uses diegetic sound to ground the film in the realm of the video diary, connecting rather than distancing the viewer.

Dead horse point (2006) 18:30
                With this tour or the “old west”, Britski visits numerous monuments to many famous western figures. While each site could have many stories told about them, this quiet film leaves these stories untold, emphasizing the forgotten nature of this history.

Shoulders on a map (2004) 4:30
                This film is like a photo album of childhood travel. Britski fills screens with multiple images, frames within the frame like the pastiche of an album, filled with the dominant image of travel, the blur of landscape from the car window.

Down payment on a dead horse (2006) 8 min
                Britski successfully intertwines stunningly beautiful winter landscapes with home movies of unabashedly gun-obsessed family members into a severe critique of family, memory, and masculinity.

Tortured by sidewalks (2005) 2 min
                The contrast between film and video is never more extreme than here where Britski contrasts black and white low res video with vibrant colour film in his portrait of Nova Scotia’s Peggy’s Cove, giving his own unique spin to this highly documented site.

Moving violation (2002) 5:30
                Using Pixelvision and digital video alongside 16mm film, Britski literally and figuratively reflects upon the changing face of the city as beautiful and unique buildings are destroyed for the sake of pavement and parking.

Dead horse candidate (2011) 15 min
                Over the course of a year, Britski shot daily, stunning images on a 40 acre property of biologist/naturalist filmmaker Bob Long. A feat of endurance and cinematographical creativity, this film embraces the cycles of life and death with beauty but without sentimentality.

Daybreak (2011) 10 min
This film further confuses day and night, this time using altered night footage shot on super-8 film and analog and digital video to create a new, never before seen awakening in a Saskatchewan forest. Original score by Jason Moberg.

 Jason Britski is an independent filmmaker who resides in Regina, SK, Canada. His films and videos have been screened around the world in such cities as Tokyo, Los Angeles, Brisbane, Rotterdam, Dresden, and Toronto (screened at approximately 150 venues in 20 countries). In the past 17 years he has made ten 16mm films, ten short form experimental videos, a number of corporate videos, and produced and directed two documentary TV series that have been broadcast on Bravo, Knowledge Network, and SCN. In 1997 he received his BFA in Film Production from the University of Regina, and in 1991 he received his BA (advanced) in History from the University of Saskatchewan. Jason has worked in a variety of positions in the film industry as a producer, director, cinematographer, videographer, sound recordist, and as an editor. Jason is currently a member of the Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative, Blackchair Distribution, and the Canadian Filmmakers’ Distribution Centre.
Many of Jason Britski's films may be found on his VIMEO CHANNEL. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dianne Ouellette retrospective in Regina

Here is a draft of the program notes I wrote for the screening of films by Dianne Ouellette I curated for the Filmpool that screened at the Artesian in Regina:

Dianne Ouellette Retrospective, October 25, 2012
                From the first time I saw Dianne Ouellette's films, I was humbled. Even her earliest films had an incredible elegance and depth. She has always kept her techniques relatively simple; image with sound, but her instinct for combining these elements defies imitation.  
                In searching for Dianne's secrets, I have looked more than once at what she says about her own work, especially her earlier artist statements. Two factors emerge within Dianne's self analysis. The first is an admission of how long the project took to create with an inevitable apology for the film's late release. This type of rationalization has previously always seemed like Dianne's method of avoiding talking about the more personal aspects of the films, her brave, soul-searching content, but instead to safely redirect discussion towards the filmmaking process. The second factor I found was for Dianne to discuss her films in terms of their importance as documents of her family and family history. Again, a deflection exists as she shifts authorship away from herself and onto the individual subjects. I now wonder if my own dismissal of Dianne's self critique has been too quick. History, time, and aging are central to Dianne's discussion of her work as well as being central to the work itself.  Her criticism of the time it takes to create this work, the delay and distance between the shooting of the subject and the exhibition to the audience, is a curious obsession. This possible thematic element has become important to me when considered alongside evidence of my own viewing experiences as I revisit her films through the filter of time. An acute awareness of the events on-screen existing in the past within a confined  chronological period is reinforced through the discussion of production schedules and delays. We know that these events happened and we also know that events must have continued afterwards. In Brechtian fashion, we are not only aware that we are watching a film, we are also aware that the filmic events did not conclude with the completion of the project.  
                Age and experience cast new light on all art. In revisiting Dianne's films, I am seeing something new and surprisingly fresh in these images and voices. I still stand by my 2007 Splice Magazine analysis of her films as "memory presented as fluid and sometimes frozen through the use of formal conventions" and that "time stops just as memory obsesses over single moments, ignoring all others".  Five years later, I still see Dianne as a master at using film as a manipulation of time, but now, more than ever, I see her as an author of memory. She does not hold back; issues of death, regret, and sorrow mix with love, joy, and fun. With first impressions, Dianne's films strike the viewer as being more about melancholy than amusement. On multiple viewing, especially when viewings are broken up by large periods of time, the oppositional forces of her life appear to slowly merge into one. Dianne shows us her life, not as a series of historical moments, tragic hardships, or romantic trysts but rather as an amalgamation of events, each intertwined and indebted to the last. This is what cinema is best at, showing  a flow rather than a snapshot. Life does not have a decisive moment, it has blurred moments that are a bit of this and a bit of that. We sometimes choose to remember only the good or only the bad, but Dianne will be there reminding us that we live in a blurry place that cannot be so easily contained.

                Dianne shows us her life so that we can better see our own. She uses the camera as a mirror and then challenges us to gaze at ourselves. We look at Dianne's life, and ultimately at our own lives, as an unsolvable conundrum of sadness and elation. Her bravery makes us all better people. Yes, it may be that the creation of these films is cathartic for Dianne herself, but in making them so public, presenting them on film to be communally shared, a new catharsis is formed which allows strangers to begin down their own paths of self discovery.
                            - Gerald Saul, curator, October 2012
december (11 minutes, 16mm, 1997)
This was Dianne's second film and the first in which she truly embraced her now trademark style ; using direct address audio commentary alongside casual, almost home-movie-like film clips. Dianne discusses her own life and her relationship with her mother as she struggles with entering adulthood.

Ashes (7 minutes, 16mm, 2005)
Full of music and journeys, this visually powerful film features Dianne's uncle as he attempts to deal with the memory of his late wife. Amidst the melancholy background of photographs and the cemetery, brightly lit carrousels still spin and the cycle of life and renewal is constantly in motion.

sigh (9 minutes, 16mm, 2001)
This deeply symbolic film uses an image of a horse, it's grace and freedom confined by the slow motion process of filmmaking, to consider the illusion of emotion. Included here as a representation of how Dianne uses film to poetically come to terms with her own life and personal issues.  

1971 (3 minutes, super-8, 2008)
Dianne features her grandfather whose voice-over narration describes meeting his wife and how she eventually runs off, abandoning him for another more flamboyant man. The film challenges our trust of memory and the stories we hear when the images of a prone body suggest a different, far less romantic end to this story.

Aurthur (3 minutes, super-8, 2005)
A day in the life of new puppy; its energetic and spontaneous life captured with a controlled and steady camera. The dog finds conflict even though the film is without a story.

Departure (3 minutes, super-8, 2003)
This film combines moments of old television shows with film of Dianne's sister in the process of packing.  It epitomizes the fusion of the everyday with the momentous events which punctuate our lives as Alison prepares for a life-changing departure. Mass media, indifferent to the events of its viewers, punctuate the process with irony and wit.

Bootalicious (3 minutes, super-8, 2010)
Bold, strong, and fun, this film has always seemed like the best portrait Dianne ever did of herself.

Summer (45 minutes, digital, 2007) PREMIERE
With this complex weaving of events, voices, and images Dianne attempts to document her sister's struggle with a bi-polar disorder. The borders of time and history are drawn increasingly into question as Dianne blurs the events of the past and present, drawing upon images from her previous films and asking questions that do not yet have answers.

Gerald Saul, curator, is a long time member of the Saskatchewan Filmpool and a professor in the Department of Media Production and Studies at the University of Regina.
Dianne Ouellette - Artist Statement
                Film for me is about memory.  As life unfolds, so do the stories in my completed works. My work is a reflection of my experiences and memories.  Themes of love and loss flow through many of my films. Feelings of nostalgia come forth in the works with grainy images created with super 8 and 16mm film; as the images dancing on screen seem to be from some far away time like a distant familiar memory.
                I have found that throughout the years of public screenings that viewers watch my films and reflect upon their own lives relating with their own life experiences. There is a lot of sadness in the reflected images of my films, but there is also humor and happiness. There is a definite mix of emotions, even for myself when re-watching them years later.
                "december" tells the story of life, death and turning thirty. "sIgh" tells the story of failed relationships in contrast to the 50 year marriage of my grandparents. "Ashes" is a reflection of mortality through my grandfather's grief over the death of his wife and the most recent death of his son who once told me the secret of life. All these films are a reflection of life so far and all the expectations that are to come with aging.
                All of my super 8 films were created for the "One-Take Super 8 event" held annually in Regina.. "Aurthur" is a silent film that introduces my new puppy from years ago. "1971" is the story my grandfather tells about my biological grandmother who I never knew. In my Grandfather's mind she ran off with a movie director from Hollywood; when in fact she was found murdered on a street in Edmonton in 1971. "Bootalicious" is a bittersweet goodbye to the trucker I once dated. "Departure" is a step from the craziness that the cards of life had dealt as my sister and I depart on a journey to England to work on my film "Summer".
                Lastly, "Summer" is my documentary that was completed in 2006, but sat on a shelf collecting dust until now. It tells the story of my stepfather and sister who were both diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the summer of 2002. I wasn't ready to show the documentary until recently. It's a personal story about my family and the struggle we went through to get well.

                I look back on my work with great sadness at times because so much has changed since I started creating my work. I have lost my grandmother, who we see waving goodbye to me in "sIgh". I have lost my Uncle who we see playing his guitar in "Ashes" with my grandfather who could once play the violin. I see my grandfather in so much of my work and now he sits in a nursing home with no memory of his wife of 50 years, as he has Alzheimer's disease. Lastly, I see my brother, Guy,  in so many of my films. He was killed in a rig accident almost 3 years ago. The last images of my brother speaking on camera are in "Summer". For me this will remain my memory of the way he looks and the way he sounded when he spoke.
                Know that through all the sadness that is expressed in my films there is true happiness for having such a collection of work. "Life is good.", as my sister, Allison concludes in "Summer".

Dianne Ouellette - Biography
                Dianne Ouellette earned her BFA in Film and Video in 1995 and her BA in Theatre in 1993 from the University of Regina. She was born in Prince George, BC and as a child moved to a small town in Saskatchewan. As well as being known as an independent filmmaker, she has worked in the corporate training video world for over 10 years. Within the film industry, she has been a producer, writer, director, cinematographer, videographer, and editor. Dianne has served the Saskatchewan Filmpool as its president and as the editor of Splice Magazine. Her award winning films have been screened internationally in Paris, Croatia, India, Italy, San Francisco, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Telluride, Vancouver, Victoria, and Toronto. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Ethical Problems with Human-Centric Narratives in Lego Mars Mission Play Sets.

I wrote thisin 2009 and it was published in an online magazine, Rigor Mortis, which now seems to be altered or defunct, so I am republishing it here. It seems that all of the links to the Lego site no longer exist, so I've put in a couple of Youtube links. It will take some time to find all of the original material. Unfortunately, the Lego site was all in flash video and I didn't have the means to extract them at the time.

Ethical Problems with Human-Centric Narratives in Lego Mars Mission Play Sets.

Between 2007 and 2008, Lego produced a series of toy building block sets under the theme “Mars Mission”. Like all contemporary Lego series, the release included different sizes of sets ranging from 50 pieces up to 1000 pieces. To entice product/series loyalty and to establish a jumping off point for play, the Lego company created a website where one can find narratives behind their toys. In the case of “Mars Mission”, the story is about human explorers who have come to Mars, have discovered some sort of powerful energy crystals, and have begun to excavate the surface of the planet to extract these crystals. They do this through the use of a huge machine that rips open the surface of the planet. Then, according to the human Lego characters, they become the subjects of unprovoked attacks by the Martians who are stealing the crystals ( back from the humans. While two small text messages in one Lego character’s “blog” suggest that the green aliens are actually from somewhere else, this does not diminish the implication on the product packaging artwork and animated web videos that these aliens on Mars are Martians. Therefore I argue that there is insufficient information imparted to the toy user (the kids) to allow them any interpretation other than that the aliens are Martians, therefore I will maintain that assumption in my reading of the Lego narratives.
It is not difficult to re-interpret the Lego web site videos to see that the Martians are only reacting to an aggressive human (alien) invasion of their world. Case in point, the video ( depicting the Lego MT-61 Crystal Reaper shows the humans callously ripping through the planet surface, attacked by the aliens as a reaction to their invasion. This “reaper” machine is a giant strip mining tank that would certainly be questioned as a tool if used on Earth, but in terms of quickly conquering and colonizing Mars, such ethics and precautions are cast aside. Furthermore, the design of the MT-61 Crystal Reaper features one of the aliens connected to the machine for reasons that are never explained. However, the hose inserted into the chest of the prone alien that leads to the central reactor of the “reaper” suggests that the alien is the battery/power source for the machine and that the mining effort is as much to collect aliens as it is to collect power crystals. This is further supported by the larger Mars MB-01 Eagle Command Base   which features pneumatic tubes for sending prone aliens from station to station. 
Crystal Reaper on right
            Thus, my view of the “Mars Mission” Lego is one of invasion, colonization, slavery, and unethical scientific experimentation. Being “just toys”, there seems to be little critical discussion of the implications of the visuals and narratives that are presented alongside of the toys. While I do not advocate for absolute political correctness in all matters, I do suggest that the marketing departments recognize that their stories and products have a cultural impact and may be interpreted, even by children, as having subtext. Deeper meanings behind the stories affect the way children play with the toys and relate to each other while playing. I have watched and listened to my son ( and his friend play with these Lego sets, creating never ending variations on the stories that were rooted in the website. When playing with “Mars Mission”, neither of them ever choose the role of the aliens as their own, nor are they meant to as implied by the catch phrase No matter who the enemy, you can defend the mission  The Martian aliens seem to be voiceless, non-communicative aggressors. They evoke no sympathy or empathy from the kids who see them undoubtedly as being responsible for their own situation. Worse yet, the green aliens are not human and in the realm of Lego, there seems to be no worse crime. Without exception, non-human figures in Lego Castle, Lego Space Police, and Lego Power Miners are villains. With such a human-centric pattern spanning every original fantasy/science fiction set designed by Lego, it is surprising that they have not attracted more negative critiques so far.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Queer City Cinema screening, 2012

On June 7, the 9th Queer City Cinema festival opened in Regina. Run every two years, this festival was created by curator Gary Varro and is named after this city's nickname, "the Queen City". This year's events take place at Neutral Ground, an artist-run centre art gallery in the heart of downtown. These are some of my observations on the dozen videos shown in the first screening on  opening night.

Tashina by Caroline Monnet contained many strong visuals. She juxtaposed the rigid domineering man-made structures such as escalators, bridges, rows of book shelves, and hallways filled with pipes against less dominant background scenery; water and snow.  The story, told in voice over, discusses home as a place of sanity, and the journey away from it is punctuated by foreboding music.  Education is not an end but a means to bring an end to the poverty stricken reserve life. A phone call to her grandfather, ending in a disconnect, is a perfect metaphor for the frustration and anxiety of her urban transition.

Kyisha Williams video Red Lips mixes straight forward interviews with a number of women, each audibly identifying themselves as black and queer (along with other individual specifics) with text and extreme close ups of red lips which act as the narrator. Stories revolve around unfair incarceration of black or aboriginal women and declarations of the oppressive nature of the prison institution. The close up lips simultaneously fragment/dehumanize the body while making the voice universal, individual, and specific.

"You're just not what we were looking for" is a repeated sentiment in How to Stop a Revolution by Kenji Tokawa. Again, fragmentation seemed a dominant motif as bits of story are either told in voice over or demonstrated in re-enactments.  With each story interrupted and left incomplete, the  overall sense of her universe is one of animosity or indifference. When she finally declares that "The walls are crumbling in" we share the feeling of being an outsider, of the world simply not being big enough to fit everyone's individuality into.

The Dance by Bandit Queen was the only example in this screening of what was once a dominant trope at queer festivals, the graphic and often violent depiction of sex. These re-enactments of Afghan prison camps are chilling, not so much from their realism but for the symbolic absence of identity of the aggressors. Even the camera sits alone on a chair, having no witness to hold their eye to it.  

Filmmaker and artist Allyson Mitchell is the subject of Lesley Loksi Chan and Dilia Narduzzi's video Making Ladies. While this is basically a traditional documentary format program (interview with b-roll of the artwork being discussed), the subject matter was highly engaging, thought provoking, and humorous. Mitchell is passionate and articulate as she discusses her views on the need for her sensual nine foot high lesbian sasquatches to attract and confront the viewer, her championing of the honor of (feminine) craft in a world which prioritizes (masculine) Art. and her interest in the emotions imbued into hand-made objects which she reuses in her work.

Candy Fox, a local film student, was in attendance with her first festival entry, Being Two Spirited. It features interviews with a number of people discussing their childhoods and coming to discover their strengths of being two spirited. It is a call to all of them to take on the obligations this brings, to be proud, to be leaders. Fox answered questions about her video, describing it as being motivated by her desire to answer questions she posed to herself about her culture, her identity, and her past. Discussion after the screening was enthusiastic, focussing primarily on the many connotations of being "two spirited".

Seeking Single White Male by Vivek Shraya is a visually interesting study of the self identity as oversized text questions and criticizes the various photos of the filmmaker as changing hair, lighting, and makeup alters who he seems to be to an outsider's eyes. This is certainly a question for everyone today as our image to the outside world shrinks to a one inch frame on your social media page.

Farrah Khan uses pixelation to create a frenetic and comical journey in her video Cab Ride. The mixture of approaches, animation, live action (feet washing) and voice over text evokes the early works of Ann Marie Fleming as Khan weaves a tale about being questioned by a traditional Pakistani driver about her views on arranged marriage (to which she relies that she" believes in love").  The most touching moment comes at the end when she is  finally free of the cab driver's interrogation with her sexuality and true opinions remaining safely guarded.  The image of the  animated moss and paper cab is obliterated by hands filled with turmeric which stain the tabletop and leaving a stronger signifier of her heritage than the one she was trying to erase. Only then does she reveal to us the true trouble in her heart; "I know being a lesbian is not a sin. I'm just a Muslim daughter who wishes her father would call".

Mary by Kent Monkman is a meticulously created film which features an evocatively dressed First Nations man in a sexy red dress and high heels. As he approaches and removes the shoe and sock from a wealthy white man, text panels question a forgotten promise. When finally the mascara tears run onto the man's foot, a final didactic spells out the metaphor, of the miscommunication of the treaties and the difficulties of the Indian Act. With such precision of lighting and design, the margin between love and fear seemed microscopic.  

Don't Ask Don't Tell GAY GAY GAY by Dayna McLeod is one of those videos where the idea and description (all the gay references in an episode of Boston Legal are extracted and cut together rapidly) is inadequate to express the savage humour, energy, and ridiculousness of this very short work.

Tina Takemoto's video Looking for Jiro  begins as a story about a man locked up during the internment of Japanese people in America in the 1940s but slowly creeps into being a performance. The white clad man, superimposed atop images of these camps or by early cinema images of body builders, is simply sweeping at first but eventually he begins to sculpt muscular arms for himself. In the end, the camp is not the prison, it is his desires and unachievable goals which keep him oppressed.

Last Kiss by Charles Lum is a study of graffiti on a memorial  for Oscar Wilde. As a bearded  man kisses the marble, we are told that the object will be covered with glass and will, therefore, be untouchable in the future.  Flashes of pop culture, including Wonder Woman, flash past at the midpoint, suggesting the far reaching impact of Wilde on who we all are today. History will now be guarded, safe and dead.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fragile Harvest; a screening of films by Phil Hoffman and participants of the Film Farm (Independent Imaging Retreat)

         Since 1994, Ontario filmmaker Phil Hoffman has been hosting filmmaker retreats at his farm near the town of Mount Forest where each year a dozen or so artists and filmmakers converge to drink in the cool well water, share communal meals, and run a few hundred feet through their cameras. Films created during this week tend towards the highly personal, as these participants throw off their urban armor and run wildly down a gravel road of self discovery.  I knew of the these films before I knew of the Independent Imaging Retreat itself. In my viewing of hundreds of experimental films during my MFA research, I began to see patterns and themes arise. I was very excited about these fresh personal stories and their hand-made approach, but the source of influence was not yet clear. All I knew was that a new aesthetic was taking shape and having a significant impact on the national avant garde movement. 
            One may easily suggest that there is something about going to a farm, away from the noise of the city, away from the continuous interaction with computers and phones and schedules, that brings out stories in people. Perhaps the open air is a vacuum, drawing your words and thoughts from us, forcing us to share them with the world. Perhaps this is true, at least for big city dwellers, but from someone who has spent sufficient hours standing amid blowing fields of grain, wandering past decrepit wooden farm structures, and climbing over inconveniently placed barbed wire fences, my intuition makes me doubt this analogy.
            I would suggest that it is not solely Phil Hoffman’s farm which inspires the nature of work created there, but it is Phil himself who is the key. I attended the “imaging retreat” (or “film farm” as we all called it) in 2002. Margaret and William (age 10 months) came with me as my perpetual muses, but home is always left behind when one reaches the Hoffman farm. It is certainly quiet and peaceful, but that can be said for any of a million other hunks of land in this country. More significantly, it is welcoming. This is almost entirely to the credit of Phil and his hand-picked team of workshop leaders, like life coaches who can load Bolexes. Each participant is treated as an invited guest, never like a paying consumer. In turn, every one of them seems inclined to reciprocate by embracing all of the hosts and attending filmmakers with warmth and respect.
            Central to the film farm is the barn which houses darkrooms to develop film, open spaces to hang film to dry, screening areas, and relaxation spots to talk, think, or read. No modern complex could be as versatile or accommodating. The so-called enemies of filmmaking; dust, wind, light leaks, and noise, are all acceptable commodities in this environment. To fight the flaws is to fight again nature itself. To accept nature as an external force helps to open the door to express your inner nature (while being a vegan and utilizing meditation crystals remains strictly optional).
            After a week of getting your hands dirty, you emerge with the raw materials of a film. This is more than just images on emulsion, it is ideas and inspirations. The direct process of creating, contemplating, exhibiting, and critiquing, is crucial to the film retreat. You find yourself able to respond to comments, rework the project multiple times, and shape it into something you can truly be proud of.
            The films created at the film farm deny the necessity of the film industry infrastructure by allowing a single filmmaker to personally control a maximum number of technical processes. Since the early nineties when the retreats began, the 16mm form has been in rapid decline. Laboratories have been reducing the number of services available; optical sound tracks, reversal processing, work printing, negative cutting, and answer printing are all considered too specialized for most labs to even consider offering anymore. Making at least some of these techniques part of the filmmaker's tool belt not only ensures some continuation of the art form, it also empowers those filmmakers, making them more confident to continue working with this, or any other media form. But there remains a precarious balance for pure film artists. As much as they desire to separate themselves from industry, they remain tethered to it through certain manufactured items. Most notably, Kodak has become the only supplier on this continent for black and white film stock. They continuously change and remove stocks from their inventory as they become less profitable to market. When this supply-line is severed, so too will the ability for filmmakers to practice this art. Furthermore, it has been over five years since the last 16mm projector came off the assembly line, and in the past year, the very last film cameras have been built with none of the key companies intending to return to that market. The art of celluloid filmmaking survives at the whim of tinkerers who may or may not be able to keep the existing equipment functioning.
            Creating under this shadow, it is no wonder that the filmmakers become philosophical and introspective when using it. With every roll shot, one finds him or herself asking "is this the last time I do this?". The comparison between "film-farm" filmmakers and "farm-farm" farmers begs to be made. Not only is sustainability an issue, but the process also has parallels. Images need to be carefully cultivated, gathered, processed, and delivered to the hungry consumer. The final product never reflects how much personal investment was put into it; the time and sweat and pain. Farmers and filmmakers, each working in their fields, isolated, driven by single-minded passion certainly must live in hope that what they are doing is good and necessary and that recognition will eventually come. The belief that the outcome has value must outweigh the futility that comes with being aware of the inevitable demise of this way of working.
            The films I selected for this screening are some of the more recent works to emerge from the farm, most of which are by filmmakers I was previously unfamiliar. They each feel like they are walking a delicate line, the elements and the content both fragile, as the filmmaker struggles with mortality on some level. The cycle of the seasons is always apparent, illuminating both the nature of film as art as well as life itself. Within each, either spoke or unspoken, you can sense the Hoffman's subtle hand urging the filmmaker to be brave, to reach deep within themselves, to work beyond the pain and harvest moments of truth.

Goodbye - 3.5 min., by Daniel McIntyre (2011)
McIntyre has created a montage of images, some positive and others negative, which waft over us like the a perfume, surrounding you without touching you. The blending between positive and negative, from people to animals, from water to air, all act to evoke a semi-waking, dreamlike state; the pleasure of the inexplicable. The title seems to suggest an ending or departure as perhaps the viewer is led into a dream from which there is no waking.

Lot 22, Concession 5 – 4 min., by Penny McCann (2009)
As we listen to an old man’s voice talking about growing up on a farm, we see a crack in time and watch the story like an echo, never quite as distinct as we'd hoped. The farm and the tales are both fragmented, crackling in and out of view, incomplete. Imagination fills in details but in the end we realize that each of us has experienced a different story, as fleeting as the wind.

Towards Everyday Lightning – silent, 9 min., by James Gillespie (2003)
The world within this film is like lightning, beautiful but fleeting, existing for longer in your eye and your mind than it does in reality. Gillespie uses extensive solarization (shifts from positive to negative, randomly created through light being introduced in the middle of film development) to suggest a life as a series of memories ravaged by a storm. In silence, the storm creates a tumultuous atmosphere in ironic contrast to the lethargic faceless farm labourer featured on screen.

Anamnesis – 3 min., by Scott Miller Berry (2009)
The camera seem agitated as it struggles to discover meaning below the layers of paper, some being wasp nests, others being photographs collaged onto a human face. Colour and moments of clarity don't satisfy us as the images, and the history held within them, seems too shrouded in secrecy to ever decode. Amid all the images, the man is blinded by history and paralyzed into inaction.

Once – 5 min., by Barbara Sternberg (2007)
"Once" conjures up a sensation of seeing the world for the first time, awakening in a forest and knowing only the flashes of light, trees like a veil against the sky. Sternberg posits that life is brief but important, that every moment of it is of value if we believe it to be. She begs us to open our eyes and to really see.

Destroying Angel - 32 min., by Phil Hoffman and Wayne Salazar (1998)
"Destroying Angle" is a collaboration between Hoffman and Salazar and is not, strictly speaking, made at the film farm. It represents the methods and approaches that Hoffman takes in creating a film and the legacy he has established. The structure is loose, moving fluidly between black and white and colour, sync sound and voice over, abstract and representation, metaphor and informational and most importantly between the filmmaker as maker and as subject. It is a film about dualities. There are two primary stories, that of Salazar's struggles with AIDS and his coming to terms with his father, and the story of Hoffman's wife Marion McMahon and her tragic death from cancer in 1996. The film was shot over an extended period of time, partially at the farm, partially off of it. It is about memory, how photographic images evoke feelings but often tell a different story. When Salazar's photos of his father and his dog contradict his memory of them, we realize that we cannot trust the plastic arts, that all of what we are watching is subjective. For every right there is a wrong, for every failure there is a success and this is not represented in either memory nor in photography.

This film is the metaphoric harvesting of Phil Hoffman, turning inspiration into seeds, growing them into courage for the filmmakers he touches. The film poses many questions about the nature of memory. Should we share our stories, releasing them into the world, or hold them close to our hearts? What will do more good, what will do more  harm? In a world overshadowed by memory, how can we let go? 
8:00 pm, Friday November 25, 2011
Saskatchewan Filmpool Co-operative
1822 Scarth Street, Regina, SK
Featuring a selection of short lyrical films
created during the legendary Independent Imaging Retreats
hosted by Ontario filmmaker Phil Hoffman over the past twenty years.